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What Do Narcissists See When They Look in the Mirror?

The answer may surprise you.

Source: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

In a recent article, I discussed the importance of mirrors and reflections for our psychological development. What about narcissists? This pops up when we think about psychology and the looking glass. The narcissist is often portrayed gazing at himself in the mirror, after all. The word is drawn from Greek mythology that portrays the young Narcissus who falls in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water, his very own mirror. The illustration is accurate in that rates of narcissism are higher among men than women. But is looking at oneself, being curious about oneself, or even fascinated with oneself, inherently narcissistic? Based on the research, the general answer is no.

Research tells us that the connections between narcissism, self-focus, and physical attractiveness are complex—and surprising.

First, it’s important to know that everyone thinks they are more attractive than they really are. Many studies in psychology show that people's inferences about their own traits and abilities are often enhancing. That is, we generally believe we’re smarter and more attractive than we really are. Some experiments even show that this enhancement extends to people recognizing their own faces as being more physically attractive than they actually are.

In one experiment, participants' faces were made more or less attractive by a morphing procedure. They were then shown a lineup of their own morphed face (as in gradations of more and less attractive images of their face) and were asked to pick the image that was actually their face. People were more likely to recognize an attractively enhanced version of their own face out of the lineup as their own actual face, and they identified an attractively enhanced version of their face more quickly in a lineup of faces too. The enhancement bias seemed to be a relatively automatic rather than a conscious, deliberative cognitive process.

Second, physical attractiveness is positively correlated with mirror gazing. In one study, women who reported being satisfied with their appearance before mirror-gazing actually felt even more attractive and satisfied after they gazed at themselves. In an interesting field study, women and men were observed as they walked past a section of reflecting glass that served as a mirror. The amount of time spent by each person gazing at his or her own image was recorded. The physical attractiveness of each participant was also rated separately by experimental observers. For both females and males, time spent mirror-gazing was positively correlated with their physical attractiveness.

Third, narcissists are considered more attractive than the average person. A statistical analysis (meta-analysis) review of almost 50 different studies comprised of over a thousand research participants revealed a small but reliable positive correlation between narcissism and physical attractiveness. The studies were based on observers’ ratings of attractiveness (not the narcissists’ rating themselves). So the measure of physical attractiveness was less biased. It’s easy to imagine why narcissists rate themselves as more attractive—but why would they actually appear more attractive to others too? Narcissists do enjoy looking at themselves in the mirror. They may spend more time grooming themselves to bolster their grandiose self-images. In this way, narcissists may be more prone to self-objectify—and identify with and to base their self-worth on their external appearance, instead of their character.

Finally, the hallmark of narcissism is a lack of empathy and compassion. It’s been found in many experiments and clinical observations that narcissists have a habitual self-absorbed perspective that seems to prevent them from being aware of the emotions and experiences of others. Studies show the narcissistic people have deficits of empathic concern at the levels of affective sharing or arousal (that is, resonating with the feelings of others), understanding emotions, and emotion regulation.

So, what’s happening in the brain of a narcissist that’s different from the rest of us?

Empathy is a process that involves sharing, imagining, and understanding the emotions of others. Neuroscience tells us that the primary brain structures involved in mediating these components of empathy are the anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, and specific regions of the medial prefrontal cortex. The anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex are the main nodes in what’s called the salience network, which selects and coordinates the flow of information. Anterior insula acts as a dynamic switch between two separate networks of cognitive processing: the central executive network, which is concerned with effective task execution, and the default mode network, which is involved with self-reflective processes. In other words, our brains can switch between focusing on a task or focusing on ourselves, but it’s hard to do both at once. The right anterior insula is also an important brain structure in experiencing and anticipating emotions and is involved in thinking about ourselves. And, the right anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are typically associated with empathizing with others.

Recent brain imaging studies suggest that narcissists’ deficit in empathy is due to a dysfunction in the anterior insula. There seems to be an imbalance in the functioning of the salience network in which the anterior insula can’t turn off the default mode network which centers one’s attention on the self. So in other words, the brains of narcissists show that they can’t stop thinking about themselves. This, of course, might hinder the ability to effectively share and understand the emotions of others.

Interestingly, this lack of empathy among people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is commonly considered a result of an intentional unwillingness to identify with others’ feelings and needs. However, these recent studies suggest that their lack of empathy may come from deficits in cognitive processing that aren’t under their conscious control.

Other research suggests that narcissists might not be intentionally or willfully uncaring, but simply be less able to recognize and understand the emotions of others. Being able to recognize emotions via facial expressions is an important skill needed for empathy and compassion.

In studies that used a classic test of recognizing and understanding facial expressions of fear, anger, disgust, joy, and sadness, narcissists showed deficits in emotion recognition, particularly for fear and anger. This tendency for narcissists to perform worse in the recognition task held true irrespective of how long they had to recognize the emotion during the task. So, narcissists have difficulty recognizing distress (via fear and anger) in others—which would impede them from empathizing with them.

In a neuroimaging experiment, a sample divided into high and low narcissists did a task that involved empathizing with pictures of emotional faces. Narcissists showed lower deactivation of the right anterior insula and higher activation of the posterior cingulate cortex and premotor areas—again, suggesting narcissists had difficulty turning off their self-focus. On a questionnaire, the high narcissism group reported more self-oriented feelings of personal anxiety and unease in stressful interpersonal settings. It could also be that they have difficulty modulating their own affective arousal due to an overactive right anterior insula. So an inability to turn off self-focus, and at the same time, high amounts of arousing stimuli within their internal world may impair the functioning of the narcissists’ right anterior insula even more. As a result, the processing of external stimuli in the social world may be contorted, and narcissistic people will be seen as having issues grasping the perspectives of others. So taken together, narcissists have difficulty controlling self-focus, recognizing others’ emotions, and regulating their own anxiety—and these appear to be the causes of their difficulties empathizing and responding compassionately.

It’s interesting that mirrors can help us recognize our emotions, stay tuned for part two and remember when you think you’ve spotted a narcissist—there may be more happening than meets the eye!


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